Monday morning, ten-thirty. Lyle opened the door to his one-bedroom apartment just as his girlfriend, Annabelle, was emerging from the kitchen wearing only a t-shirt and underwear.
“Oh my god!” Annabelle screamed, jumping backward.
“Oh my god!” Lyle screamed, jumping backward.
Annabelle pulled her t-shirt to her knees. “What are you doing here?”
Lyle stood in the doorway, frowning. “Me? What are you doing here?”
Annabelle looked at him, her mouth open. Finally, she said, “I asked you first.”
“I lost my job.”
“You lost your job?”
“I lost my job. Melinda called me into her office this morning, said my position had been eliminated. It was an across-the-board, 30 percent reduction in staff.”
Annabelle’s mouth dropped open. “They eliminated 30 percent of their workers?”
“Yep. And of that 30 percent, only 5 percent were given the option of accepting a lower-paying position in another department. The odds weren’t in my favor.”
“Oh, Lyle,” Annabelle said. “I’m so sorry. What are you going to do?”
“Well,” Lyle said, kicking off his shoes in the doorway, “my plan right now is to change into my weekend clothes, head down to the bar and get drunk. No sense wearing a collared shirt and a tie anymore. I might get mistaken for a contributing member of society.”
Annabelle frowned. “Are you sure getting drunk is the best idea right now?”
Lyle shrugged. “I’d planned on climbing to the top of a skyscraper and jumping to my death, but you know how I feel about heights.” He set down his briefcase and loosened his tie. “Besides, it’s not like I got to start looking for a job right away. I got two weeks’ severance.”
“So you’re going to wait until your severance runs out before you start looking for work?”
“Of course not. It’s when my unemployment runs out that I’ll start looking for work.”
“Lyle.” Annabelle shook her head. “I don’t want you getting depressed about this. You have to keep in mind that you’re not alone. A lot of people are out of work right now.”
“Yep. I’m well aware of that, hon. And all of us unemployed people are competing for the few jobs out there. I’m filled with so much optimism.”
“C’mon — think positive. This could end up being a good thing. You hated that job anyway. You always said you were Melinda’s bitch.”
“My official title was ‘executive assistant.’”
“Well, your official duties included fetching Melinda’s coffee and taking her pets to the groomers. It wasn’t the best use of your journalism degree.”
“It was the only job I could get with a journalism degree.”
“Beyond that, try to look on the bright side,” Annabelle said. “I think this could be a great thing. You were always telling me you were going to quit, anyway.”
“Yeah, but I’m also always telling you I’m going to lose twenty pounds and have the oil changed in your car. Clearly, I don’t mean anything I say.”
Annabelle threw up her hands. “Fine. Whatever. Go get drunk and wallow in your own pathetic bubble of self-pitying misery, then, if that’s what you want.”
“I’ll stop at getting drunk. I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew.” Lyle tugged at his tie, pulling it away from his shirt. “By the way, you never told me why you were home.”
Annabelle’s eyebrows rose. “Me?”
“Yeah. What are you doing home so early? I thought you had a mid-morning meeting.”
“Oh, that.” Annabelle looked at the wall. “It got canceled.”
“It got canceled? Who canceled it?”
Annabelle clucked her tongue. “Me.”
“You?” Lyle frowned. “I don’t get it. You canceled your own meeting?”
“Why? I thought you said it was important?”
Annabelle shrugged. “I guess I realized I didn’t have anything to say.”
“Huh.” Lyle raised his shoulders. “Too bad you don’t have that problem at home.” He started walking toward the bedroom.
Annabelle caught his arm. “Where are you going?”
“To the bedroom.”
“Because I want to change my clothes, and my clothes are in the bedroom.”
“You don’t need to change your clothes. You look fine.”
“I don’t care how I look. I care about how I feel. And I feel uncomfortable in dress clothes. I want to wear my jeans.”
“Here.” Annabelle gently guided Lyle to the kitchen. “I can get your jeans. Sit down and have a cup of coffee.”
“But I don’t want a cup of coffee. I want a drink. That’s why I need my jeans.”
“You don’t need your jeans to have a drink,” Annabelle said. She picked up a glass of water off the counter. “See, I’m having a drink, and I’m not wearing any pants.”
“I noticed that,” Lyle said. “Where are they, by the way?”
Annabelle blinked. “Where’s what?”
“Yes, your pants. As you pointed out, you’re not wearing any.”
“Oh.” Annabelle swallowed. “I took them off.”
“I can see that,” Lyle said. “The question is, why did you take them off? Is that the first thing you do when you cancel a meeting? You come home and take off your pants?”
“Well, no,” Annabelle said. “I usually pour a drink first.”
“You pour a drink and then take off your pants?” Lyle stood up. “Hold on a sec, hon. I think I see what’s going on here.”
Annabelle stopped in her tracks and swallowed. “You do?”
“Yeah.” Lyle approached her from behind. “You think you’re fooling me, but you’re not.”
Annabelle stiffened. “I’m not?”
“No.” Lyle frowned. “Melinda called you this morning, didn’t she? She told you that I was going to lose my job, and she asked you to come home to cheer me up. That’s why you greeted me with no pants on.”
Annabelle took a deep breath, her eyes closed. “You’re … you’re very perceptive. You should have been a newspaper reporter.”
“Well,” Lyle said, grinning, “that’s why I majored in journalism. It’s just too bad the newspaper industry died the moment I graduated.
“Here –” he grasped her shoulder and turned her around so that she was facing him. He embraced her in a tight hug, so that her mouth was pressed uncomfortably into his shoulder. “I don’t need to go out drinking. Not when I have you to support me.”
“Mmm.” Annabelle said, unable to speak.
“You know what I want to do?” Lyle asked. “I want to take you in the bedroom and forget all about Melinda and my job and the barren, desolate landscape that is now my future.”
“Mmm!” Annabelle said. She yanked her head away. “The couch!”
Lyle frowned. “The couch?”
“The couch. Let’s use the couch. The bed … the bed’s not made.”
“Of course it’s made. I made it this morning. You told me to.”
“Yeah, but … you didn’t do a good job. I had to unmake it.”
Lyle frowned again. “You had to unmake it?”
“That’s right.” Annabelle nodded. “You have a problem with hospital corners, Lyle. I didn’t want to tell you. Especially today … since you lost your job and all.”
“Uh-huh.” Lyle looked past her. “Tell me something. Why is the bedroom door closed?”
Annabelle’s muscles tightened. “The bedroom door?”
“Yeah. Why is it closed? We never close that door.”
Annabelle gritted her teeth. After a moment, she said, “I didn’t want anyone to see the unmade bed?”
Lyle looked at her, then let her go. He charged toward the door.
“Lyle!” Annabelle said. He paused, his hand on the doorknob.
“Do you have something to tell me?” Lyle asked, looking straight ahead at the closed door in front of him.
Annabelle swallowed, then let out a sigh. “Your day’s not going to get any better.”
Lyle turned the knob and flung open the door. His best friend, Brent, sat in his underwear atop the unmade bed, the tattered sheets bunched up around him.
“Hey, buddy!” Brent said. He tried to grin, but it came out as more of a grimace. “I know what you’re thinking, and let me assure you, this is not what it looks like.”
“Brent, don’t even try,” Annabelle said. “Lyle’s not stupid. This is exactly what it looks like, and you know it.”
“Yeah,” Lyle said. “And besides, I’m a trained journalist. There’s no escaping my laser-like intuition.”
He turned to Annabelle, who had cautiously approached from behind and now stood beside him in the doorway. “My best friend? Really?”
Annabelle shrugged, looking at the floor. “I don’t know what to say, Lyle. I’m so sorry.”
Brent coughed, gently. “If it means anything, we didn’t want you to get hurt. That’s why we kept this from you for as long as possible.”
“Oh, is that why?” Lyle asked, crossing his arms and frowning.
“It’s true,” Brent said. “You got to believe me. Annabelle and I want nothing but the best for you.”
“It’s nice of you two to put my feelings first.”
“He’s telling the truth, Lyle,” Annabelle said. “None of this was planned. It just sort of happened. One thing led to another, and before we knew it, we were … involved.”
Lyle raised an eyebrow. “So you’re together? Just like that?”
“Not ‘just like that,’” Brent said. “Our relationship developed over a period of months. Isn’t that right, Annabelle?”
“Brent.” Annabelle shook her head. “You’re not helping.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re both involved,” Lyle said. “I enjoy a sweet, sappy love story as much as the next guy. But the major hangup I have here — and I’m hoping you’ll see my perspective on this — is that Annabelle and I are already ‘involved.’ To my knowledge, we never ‘devolved’ before you two became ‘involved.’ You can’t be involved if you’re already involved.”
Annabelle shrugged. “What can I say? Sometimes people evolve.”
“Well, then, that’s great,” Lyle said. “I’m glad I could bring you two together. I should become a matchmaker. I could hook up eager guys with the women I’m dating.”
“Lyle,” Annabelle said, biting her lower lip, “I’m really, really sorry. I don’t want you to get upset.”
“I’m not upset, hon; I’m pissed off,” Lyle said. “It’s just such a cliche. Guy loses his job, then comes home to find his girl in bed with another man. I mean, they write country-western songs about this sort of thing. Truckers everywhere will be crying in their beers when the word gets out.”
“Whoa, whoa,” Brent said. “Back up there. You said you lost your job?”
“C’mon, Brent,” Annabelle said. “You know he did. Don’t pretend you didn’t hear everything we were saying in there.”
“I was plugging my ears,” Brent said. “I didn’t want to intrude on your private conversation.”
“You’re lying half-naked in my bed, and you’re worried about intruding on my private conversations?” Lyle asked.
“Lyle, c’mon,” Annabelle said. “If you’re going to be mad at anyone, be mad at me. This is just as much my fault as his.”
“Don’t listen to her, Lyle,” Brent said. “It’s my fault. Blame me. I’m the one who initiated the relationship.”
Lyle held up his hands. “I can’t choose between you two. You both mean too much to me. I’ve got plenty of rage to go around, so I’ll hate you both equally.”
“I knew you’d be rational about this,” Brent said.
Annabelle sighed. “Lyle, you have an absolute right to hate us both. I wouldn’t blame you if you decided never to speak to us again.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Lyle said. “But I wouldn’t expect any fancy wedding gifts from me. Especially considering I’m unemployed now.”
“I’m really sorry you lost your job, man,” Brent said. “What are you going to do?”
“Well,” Lyle said, “I’d planned on coming home and throwing myself into the arms of my loving, understanding girlfriend, but I can see she’s occupied at the moment. So I guess I’ll go downstairs and get a drink.”
“Good idea,” Brent said. “I’ll buy you one.”
“Brent.” Annabelle shook her head again.
“What, I can’t buy my best friend a drink?” Brent asked.
“I’m thinking your friendship’s probably over,” Annabelle said.
“Well, I feel like I owe him something,” Brent said. “Just one drink. Is that OK with you, Lyle?”
“I don’t see why not,” Lyle said. “I caught you half-naked in my own bed about to make love to my girlfriend. I think a drink should cover it.”
Brent winced. “Maybe two drinks, then?”
“I think you should just go, Brent,” Annabelle said. “Lyle and I should talk.”
“Are you going to talk about me?” Brent asked. “Because if you’re going to talk about me, I should stay to represent myself. Who knows what you’ll say if I’m not here. I don’t want you to make it sound like this whole thing was my fault.”
Lyle frowned. “But it is your fault. You said that you initiated the relationship.”
“Yeah,” Brent said, “but that was only after she flirted with me.”
Annabelle held up her hands. “C’mon. We don’t need to start finger-pointing.”
“You only say that when all the fingers are pointed at you,” Brent said.
“Tell you what,” Lyle said, walking into the bedroom. “I don’t want to be in the middle of a domestic dispute. Let me just grab my jeans, and I’ll leave you two alone.” He picked up a pair that were lying on the floor near the foot of the bed.
“Actually, those are mine,” Brent said.
“Oh. My bad.” Lyle wadded Brent’s pants up and threw them at the desk. “Annabelle, can we get Brent his own rack in the closet? He’ll be needing his private space so his clothes don’t get mixed up with mine.”
“I know you’re upset about this,” Annabelle said, still standing in the doorway. “You get sarcastic when you get upset.”
“Well, I would get violent and in-your-face, but I have a problem with confrontations. So I’ll just throw an immature tantrum, instead.” Lyle stormed to the closet and grabbed shirts off their hangers, throwing them over his shoulders. One almost hit Brent in the face. He ducked, wincing.
“Can we talk about this?” Annabelle asked. “Please? Like adults?”
“Like adults?” Lyle turned. “You’ve known me for how long, hon? Besides, how are we supposed to have a grownup discussion when neither of you is wearing pants? I can’t take either of you seriously — especially when Brent is wearing Spiderman underwear.”
“Maybe I better go,” Brent said, shuffling off the bed.
“No, wait,” Lyle said, digging deeper in the closet. “I haven’t found my bat yet.”
Brent leaped off the bed and crammed a leg into his jeans.
“Lyle!” Annabelle said. “You don’t need the bat!”
Lyle looked up. “You’re right. Not lethal enough. Where’s the crossbow?”
Brent hopped out of the bedroom, a pant leg dragging behind him.
“Can I call you later?” he asked Annabelle.
She shook her head. “Probably not appropriate now that we’re found out.”
“Ah. Right.” He hopped toward the door as Lyle emerged from the bedroom brandishing a long, plastic vacuum nozzle.
“I’m sorry, buddy!” Brent called, bouncing outside. “I’ll make it up to you someday.”
Lyle threw the nozzle with all his strength. It missed Brent by a good six feet, knocking over a lamp.
Brent slammed the door; both Lyle and Annabelle stood and listened as he clattered down the concrete stairs, screaming.
Lyle took a deep breath, then turned and walked into the bedroom. Annabelle followed. She stood in the doorway with her arms crossed as Lyle stripped off his dress pants and put on jeans.
“Well?” she said, after awhile.
He looked up. “What?”
“Don’t you want to talk about this?”
“Talk about what?”
Annabelle snorted. “What do you think? Us.”
Lyle fastened his belt, then reached into his nightstand for some money. “I’m not sure there is an ‘us.’”
“So you’re saying it’s over?”
“Sure, why not? My career’s over. My life’s over. It’s only fitting my relationship should be over, too. Good things come in threes, right?” He walked past her and into the living room, toward the front door.
“Maybe we just need some time apart,” Annabelle called, remaining in the bedroom doorway.
Lyle paused at the front door, his hand resting on the knob.
“That’s probably a good idea,” he said, without turning. “And if it’s OK with you, I think we should start seeing other people.”
He opened the door and left.
Lyle walked from his apartment complex to the shopping center next door. He aimed straight for the Silver Tavern, his favorite after-hours (and now, during-normal-business-hours) hangout.
The place was small, dim and musty, with wood finishing on the walls and neon signs casting rainbow colors across the darkness. A big-screen TV blared from one wall, while pool tables clacked along the other. It was a community man cave: a hub of rugged masculinity where men could loaf around, throw back a few drinks and discuss manly subjects with their manly brethren (when their wives and girlfriends let them, that is).
Except for a couple of older guys in a corner, the bar was deserted. Lyle sauntered inside and perched himself upon a stool at the center of the bar.
“Hey, Charlie,” he said to the mustached man behind the counter. “Get me the usual, will you? In fact, bring me two of the usual to get started. I don’t usually start with two, but I had an unusually hard morning.”
“Sure thing,” Charlie said. “What can I get you?”
Lyle looked at him, blinking. “What else? The usual.”
Charlie looked back at him, unblinking. “And what might that be?”
“You mean you don’t know by now?” Lyle asked, frowning. “I come in here at least a few times a week. I’m always here on Friday nights. I live right here in the neighborhood.”
Charlie shrugged. “Sorry, I wouldn’t know. I commute from Sparks … and I stopped working Fridays.”
Lyle glared. “I thought this was one of those places where everyone’s supposed to know your name?”
“Hey,” Charlie said, “try seeing things from my side of the counter. I don’t get paid well enough to know your name. Besides, my job consists of memorizing hundreds of different cocktails. Know what a Moscow Mule is? Or an Orange Tundra? Do you? I have to know that kind of stuff off the top of my head. Customers aren’t impressed if you have to stop and Google their orders. They expect me to have it all filed away, here.” He tapped the side of his skull. “I, my friend, am a veritable walking, talking, falking encyclopedia of adult beverages.”
“Yeah,” Lyle said, “but–”
“So what you’re telling me,” Charlie continued, cutting him off, “is that in addition to knowing all those drinks, you want me to memorize the name and face of every joe that walks in here? And not only that, but you want me to know what their favorite drink is, in addition to what days of the week they show up? Are you serious? What kind of mind power do you think I got? If I had that kind of memory, I sure as hell wouldn’t be serving drinks for a living.”
“What would you be doing?” Lyle asked.
“I … I don’t know.” Charlie shrugged. “I’d be driving a London cab, I guess.”
“Can I just get a vodka and cranberry juice?” Lyle asked. “Two of them, to get started?”
“You mean a Cape Cod?”
Lyle frowned. “Cape Cod? I thought you were talking about London.”
“We don’t have London,” Charlie said. “We got Grey Goose. Or Ketel One. Which would you like?”
“Wait,” Lyle said. “Huh?”
“You can’t have London with your Cape Cod,” Charlie said. “You got to pick something else.”
“I don’t know anything about London or Cape Cod,” Lyle said. “I just want two vodka and cranberry juices. Please.”
Charlie looked at him, his eyes squinted. Finally, he turned and grabbed a couple of glasses. “Grey Goose it is.”
“I don’t know why you’re making this so hard,” Lyle said. “You know what happened to me this morning? I lost my job. No warning or nothing. I didn’t even get to pack my desk; they had already thrown my stuff in the Dumpster. So now I got no job, no money, no income — no foundation to ground me or a sense of direction to move forward.”
Charlie paused, holding a vodka and cranberry juice in each hand. “On that note, I’ll need to see some money up front. That’ll be $14 even.”
Lyle counted out a ten and a five and laid them on the counter. “I’ll just take fifty cents back. You can keep the rest.”
“Thanks.” Charlie set down the drinks. “Next time, you get Popov.”
Lyle sipped from one of the glasses. “So my saga doesn’t end there, you know.”
Charlie sighed. “It doesn’t?”
“Nope. Then I come home and find my girlfriend in bed with another man. But not just any man. You want to know who? Take a guess.”
“We already discussed my trouble with names,” Charlie said.
“My best friend, Brent. We’ve been pals since journalism school. And you know what the funny thing is? Brent’s always been nervous when it comes to women and dating. I’m the one who encouraged him to get out there and find the woman of his dreams. I just didn’t realize his tastes were so similar to mine.”
“Yeah.” Charlie turned toward the big-screen TV.
Lyle took another sip. “I don’t know why I’m so upset about losing my job. I hated it. I hated it more than life itself. It was just this tedious, demeaning, do-nothing, know-nothing, go-nowhere, no-promotion, no-nothing, never-ending merry-go-round of mediocrity. But it was all I had, and if I was going to get fired, I wanted it to be on my terms.”
“Uh-huh.” Charlie continued watching the TV.
“And I don’t know why I’m so upset about losing Annabelle,” Lyle said. “We’ve been having problems for a while. She says I don’t pay attention to her unless she repeats herself — but she’s always saying that. We just don’t seem to have anything in common anymore. It’s like we both want different things out of life. I want a woman who listens to me, who respects me and wants to have fun. And I’m not sure if Annabelle wants any of that.”
Lyle drained his first glass and started on the second. “My life wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he continued. “I had dreams, you know. By this age I was going to have a wife and a house and a car and kids and an amazing, well-paying job where I actually could use the skills I acquired in college. I never thought I’d end up here, in the Silver Tavern before noon on a Monday morning, alone and broke and jobless with nothing to look forward to, and nowhere else to go.”
“By the way, we’re going to be closing in ten minutes,” Charlie said. “We’re having the place steam-cleaned before happy hour tonight.”
“What do I do, Charlie?” Lyle asked. “Where can I go from here? Is this it for me? Is it too late to start over?”
“Have you considered seeing a psychiatrist?” Charlie asked. “They don’t have beer mugs to polish, so they can focus more on listening.”
“Fine,” Lyle said. “Forget it. You don’t have to bother listening to me anymore; I won’t ask you for anything.”
“I appreciate that,” Charlie said.
After a moment, Lyle said, “Can I get another drink?”
Charlie frowned. “I thought you weren’t going to ask me for anything?”
“I’m not asking for your counsel. I’m asking for a drink.”
“Another Cape Cod?”
“What is it with you and geography?” Lyle asked. “I thought you had a hard enough time memorizing cocktails?”
“I’ll need to see more money up front,” Charlie said.
“Why?” Lyle asked. “You know who I am. You see me in here every day.”
“Let me get it.” Someone sat down next to Lyle and laid some bills on the counter.
Lyle closed his eyes and sighed.
Annabelle rested her hand atop Lyle’s. “Can we talk?”
“You mean to each other?” Lyle asked, glowering.
“You’re still pretty upset, huh?”
“Well, I tried to put a positive spin on things, but I got dizzy and threw up.”
“If you got dizzy and threw up, it was probably from too many of those,” Annabelle said, motioning to his drink. “C’mon, let’s go somewhere we can talk.”
“Anything you want to say to me, you can say in front of him,” Lyle said, nodding toward Charlie, the bartender.
Annabelle frowned. “Why? Is it because you told him the story already?”
“No,” Charlie said, looking over from the TV. “It’s because he knows I don’t care.”
“You definitely should be a shrink,” Lyle said.
Annabelle tugged his sleeve. “C’mon, Lyle, let’s go home. I don’t want to talk about this in a public place.”
“Apparently, our home’s as much of a public place as here. At least the bedroom, anyway.”
Annabelle sighed. “OK – I deserve that. A booth, then? Will you give me that much?”
“I’d give my life to be left alone. But I guess there’s not much value in that anymore.”
Annabelle tugged his sleeve again. “C’mon. I’ll be quick, I promise.”
“See this?” Lyle said, looking at Charlie. “Now she’s using my own lines on me.”
Lyle stood and followed Annabelle, taking his glass. They slid into opposite ends of one of the booths along the far wall.
“Listen,” Lyle said, “before you begin, let me just say: If you’re here to apologize and beg for forgiveness and swear off your relationship with Brent, then don’t waste your breath. As far as I’m concerned, it’s over between us. Over. You understand? I don’t want to hear any blubbering spiel about how much you still love me.”
Annabelle shook her head. “That’s not what I’m going to say.”
“I – what?” Lyle tilted his head.
“I’m not here to say any of that, Lyle. In fact, I’m glad you found out about me and Brent. I wish I would have told you myself – I really do – but I don’t want to beg for your forgiveness. Things have changed between us. We’re not in love anymore. I think we can agree, especially now, that each of us needs to move on.”
Lyle frowned. “I don’t agree with that.”
“Face it, Lyle,” Annabelle continued. “We’ve outgrown each other. The two of us don’t make sense together anymore. If we really want to be happy, we need to let each other go. That’s what I came here to tell you. That’s what I wanted to say.”
“How can you say that?” Lyle said. “We’re supposed to love each other. That’s why we moved in together – because we love each other.”
“Actually, we moved in together so you could save on rent,” Annabelle said. “You liked that my apartment had utilities included.”
“Hon, listen.” Lyle reached across the table and took Annabelle’s hand. “We don’t have to call it quits. I’m sure you had reasons for doing what you did. Why it had to be Brent you did … well, that’s another story. But all couples go through times like this. It’s just a phase, that’s all.”
Annabelle sighed. “Lyle, a phase is when you’re having nightmares and wetting the bed. An affair is when you’re backstabbing your lover and quietly crying out for help. And that’s what I’ve been doing for a long time, now, even though I didn’t realize it. I’ve been crying out for help.”
Lyle swallowed, releasing his grip on Annabelle’s hand. “So what are you saying? It’s all over between us, and you’re in love with Brent?”
Annabelle shook her head. “I’m not in love with Brent.”
“Then it’s not over between us?”
“No,” she said. “It’s still over between us.”
“You’re not in love with Brent but it’s still over between us?”
“I’m not in love with anybody. That’s what I’m trying to say. I went to Brent because I felt like you and I had nothing to hold onto anymore. No common ground, no shared goals. I felt like … like we were only going through the motions – like we were playing roles.”
“We role-play all the time. So what?”
“Our lives, Lyle. I’m talking about our lives.”
“If you role-played with Brent, I don’t want to hear about it.”
“Will you just listen to me, please?” Annabelle said, her voice raised.
Lyle blushed, looking around. “You said you wanted to talk privately, and now you’re going to broadcast our conversation to the whole bar? Use a little discretion; this is one of those places where everyone knows your name.”
“Lyle,” Annabelle said, “you have to know as well as I that things have changed. We’re not the same people we were when we met two years ago.”
“That’s right,” Lyle said. “When we first met two years ago, you were a bank teller. Now, you’re a branch manager.”
Annabelle frowned. “So?”
“So, when we met two years ago, I was an executive assistant. And now what I am I?”
“Before that. I mean, an hour ago, what was I? I was an executive assistant, right?”
“OK?” Annabelle shrugged. “So what’s the point?”
“The point is,” Lyle said, pointing at her, “is that I didn’t change. I’m still the same person I was when we first met. You’re the one who went and got two promotions and changed.”
“What do my promotions have to do with our relationship?” Annabelle asked.
Lyle threw up his arms. “Are you kidding me? They have everything to do with our relationship. You live for work. All your time and heart and energy goes into work. You give so much of yourself to your job that by the time you come home, there’s nothing left for me. Your job’s No. 1 on your list, and I’m No. 2. Which is appropriate, because that’s how you make me feel: like No. 2.”
Tears sprang to Annabelle’s eyes. “That’s not fair. I had an opportunity to make something of myself, and I did. I’m proud of who I am and what I do.
“Which, by the way,” she continued, “is more than I can say for you. You’ve been slaving away at that pitiful job the whole time I’ve known you, and it’s made you miserable. You want to know something? You used to be fun to be around. You were funny and full of life. But now look at you. The only thing you’re full of these days is self-pity and Grey Goose.”
“Well, excuse me for not cherry-picking my dream job,” Lyle said. “Some of us are mired in the realities of the economy. The executive-assistant job came up when the newspaper laid me off, and I had to take it.”
“It was supposed to be temporary until you could find something better,” Annabelle said. “Remember? You were supposed to keep looking. Instead, you got comfortable – not to mention lazy. And then what? You gave up.”
“I settled,” Lyle said. “There’s a difference.”
“Well,” Annabelle said, “then I guess I settled, too. Because two years ago I started dating a fun-loving guy who looked forward to the future and who saw the world through rose-colored lenses. But somewhere along the way he devolved into an angry, bitter, self-loathing sourpuss who drifted from one day to the next with no energy, no passion and no sense of direction or purpose. I had to stand and watch as he dissolved into a fragment of his former self, like a shadow retreating into the darkness, or a ghost slipping away into obscurity.”
“That’s good descriptive detail,” Lyle said. “Take it from an editor.”
“But you’re not an editor anymore, Lyle. You’re not even an executive assistant. The world knocked you down, and you never got up. You let it trample your heart … and your spirit … and everything else I loved about you.”
Annabelle blinked rapidly, rubbing her eye. “I don’t know who you are or what you’ve become, but what I do know is this: you’re not someone I want to share my life with. Not anymore. And that’s why it has to be this way. That’s why we have to say goodbye.”
Lyle took a deep breath and let it out slowly. His eyes drifted across the bar, avoiding Annabelle’s gaze.
“Well?” Annabelle said, still blinking. “What do you think?”
Lyle shrugged, staring at the table. He rolled his glass in his hands. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way, you know.”
Annabelle nodded. “I know.”
“I had dreams and plans for the future. And those plans didn’t include the worst recession our generation has ever seen, or a supposed recovery that didn’t bring jobs.”
“You did what you could,” Annabelle said. “And I respect you for that. I do. But you settled for something you didn’t love, and I think it broke you.”
Lyle laughed, bitterly. “And now I don’t even have that. Look at me now, unemployed and adrift not only in the worst recession, but the worst recovery, too.”
“I meant it when I said this could be a good thing,” Annabelle said. “This is a chance for a do-over. You can find your path again, Lyle. I know you can. And you owe it to yourself to reclaim your heart, your spirit. You owe it not only to yourself, but to the people you love.
“And not only that,” she added, “but you owe it to the world. Because the world deserves more than all your anger and heartache. The world deserves all the good you can give it.”
Lyle looked up, his eyes finally meeting hers. “I just … I feel so lost. I don’t know what to do anymore.”
Annabelle reached across the table and took his hand.
“That’s what you’ve got to figure out,” she said. “You losing your job isn’t a tragedy. It’s an opportunity. It’s a chance for you to figure your life out, and to become the person I know you can be.”
“What about us?” Lyle said. “Where are we in all of this?”
Annabelle took a breath and looked at the table. After a moment, she said, “I still think we need a break.”
Lyle sighed. “OK. How long, then?”
“What I did can’t be undone, Lyle.”
“You just explained why you did it.”
“That doesn’t make it right, or so easily forgivable. We need time – maybe a lifetime.”
“What if I try to change and turn it all around?”
“At your pace, then probably a lifetime.”
“Oh, c’mon. That’s not fair.”
Annabelle shushed him. “Let’s not talk about it anymore – please. I just want to sit with you for a while and not say anything. No fighting, no he-said, she-said. Just peaceful, meditative silence.”
“But I’m a boisterous drinker.”
“Please, Lyle. I just want to be with you.”
Lyle frowned. “We’re breaking up, but you still want to be with me? These are the kind of cryptic signals that drive men crazy.”
“I just want to remember,” Annabelle said. “I want to remember all the fun and good times we had. I want to remember us holding each other, kissing each other, loving each other. I want to remember the sparks of excitement that surged through our fingertips as we held each other’s hands. I want to recall our hopes and dreams as we stood on the brink of forever – our love bound in a timeless, endless present – while the future was only an obscurity; a concept mired in time. I want to capture and replay all those vivid memories, back when our hearts were entwined as one … back when we were happy.”
Lyle looked at his watch. “Done.”
“OK, fine.” Annabelle slid out of the booth. “Sit here and stew, then. I’m going back to work.”
“Fine, go back to work,” Lyle said, as Annabelle tromped toward the exit. “Go back and scurry through the rat maze to find your lump of cheese, if that’s what you want. There’s more to life than cheese!”
Annabelle yanked open the door and clomped outside. A sliver of sunlight flickered in, then disappeared when the door fell shut, leaving the bar in a smoky darkness.
Under his breath, Lyle mumbled, “Yeah, don’t worry about me: I’ll just stay here. All I got is time now, anyway. All the time in the world.” He held his glass to his lips, then set it down without sipping.
“All right, bar’s closed.” Charlie approached the booth, a dishtowel resting on his shoulder. “The cleaners are coming. Let’s move.”
He looked down at Lyle. “What are you still doing here, anyway? You’re letting her get away.”
“I know – it’s a tough call,” Lyle said. “There’s a part of me that’s saying to rush out and stop her, but there’s another part that’s winning the argument.”
Charlie frowned. “And what part is that?”
Lyle looked at the table, sighing. “The part that wants her to be happy.”
Lyle struggled up the concrete steps, clutching a large, cardboard box. His cousin, Shep, held the apartment door open as he walked inside.
“Is that the last one?” Shep asked.
Lyle set the box atop a large pile. “That’s it. My whole life’s on your living-room floor.”
“Good thing I ran the vacuum, then,” Shep said. “My lunch ended up there last Saturday night. Me and Cassie went clubbing and got a little carried away.”
Lyle gently kicked at one of the boxes, casting his gaze to the floor. “This is only temporary, you know.”
Shep nodded. “I know.”
“I’ll be moving as soon as I find a job and get back on my feet.”
Shep nodded. “I know.”
“I appreciate your taking me in, even though you know I can’t help with the rent until my unemployment’s sorted out.”
Shep shook his head. “I didn’t know that.”
“I just want to assure you,” Lyle continued, “that I don’t take any of this for granted, and I have no intention of overstaying my welcome.”
“Well,” Shep said, “I’d never dreamed of welcoming you to stay, but I guess I trudged headfirst into that minefield.”
Lyle sighed, staring at the pile. “I guess I better unpack and get settled in, then.”
“Let’s take a break,” Shep said. “We’ve been working all morning. How about a beer?”
Lyle shrugged. “Sure. Sounds good.”
“What’ll you have?” Shep asked, walking into the kitchen. He wrenched open the refrigerator.
“You got Spaten?”
“Um … no.”
“St. Pauli Girl?”
“Let’s try this: What do you have?” Lyle asked.
“Looks like anything you want, as long as it’s Bud Light.”
“Well, that narrows it down,” Lyle said. “I’ll take a Bud Light.”
“Excellent choice.” Shep handed Lyle a can and took one for himself. “You know, not to be rude, but you’ve got a ritzy choice in beer. Now that you’re unemployed, you’re going to have to lower your standards a bit.”
Lyle nodded. “I know. You’re absolutely right. In fact, I was thinking of giving up beer until I find a job.”
Shep frowned. “I said ‘lower your standards’ — not ‘wither up and die.’”
“Well, I toyed with the idea after losing my job, but I’ll settle for lowering my standards.”
“Speaking of lowering your standards,” Shep said, “there’s a single woman a few doors down who might be perfect for you. She’s a little older, but I think she likes younger guys.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because she’s always asking me out. She’s seen me with Cassie, too, but she doesn’t care. Now that you’re living here, maybe she’ll get off my back.”
Lyle narrowed his eyes. “How old is ‘a little older’?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Shep shrugged. “I’d say she’s in her fifties. Maybe mid-fifties.”
“Not exactly child-bearing age.”
“Yeah, but you don’t like kids. It could be a match made in heaven. Plus, she’s experienced. Maybe she could teach you a little about life and relationships.”
Lyle snorted. “I know enough about life and relationships to know I like neither.”
Shep took a swig from his beer. “Annabelle really broke your heart, huh?”
“Well, I might have broken hers, first. She claims I changed over the course of our relationship, and that I’m no longer the guy she fell in love with.”
“That’s not fair. People are entitled to change. Change is a natural part of life.”
“Yeah, but she says I changed into a jerk because I hated my job. Which was true: I did hate my job. I just didn’t know I took it out on her.”
Shep grinned. “Look at you, defending her. Somebody’s still in love.”
“No.” Lyle shook his head. “That ship not only sailed — it highballed to the edge of the ocean and fell off the face of the earth.”
“So how did you two leave things?” Shep asked. “Did you and Annabelle agree to remain friends, or are you never going to speak to each other again?”
“Both,” Lyle said. “We agreed to be friends, and I’m sure we’ll never speak to each other again.”
Just then, a huge thud hit the wall behind them, followed by the sound of shattering glass. A man and woman started screaming in the apartment next door. The wall muffled their actual words, but the volume and rage were unmistakable.
“Holy crap!” Lyle said, jumping. His beer frothed and oozed onto his hand. “What was that?”
Shep waved dismissively. “Ah, don’t worry about them. That’s just the neighbors. They’re a young couple, and they do this every day. They get in a huge screaming match, a few pieces of furniture get broken, and then they make up. You’ll get used to them.”
“Wow,” Lyle said. “Even at our worst, Annabelle and I never sounded like that.”
“They didn’t either, until they got married. This has been going on for a couple of months now. But don’t worry about it: give them an hour, and they’ll be having make-up sex. As thin as these walls are, I’m sure we’ll hear that, too. Then we’ll be wishing they were still fighting.”
Shep motioned to the patio. “C’mon, let’s sit outside, where we can hear ourselves talk.”
Lyle followed Shep through the sliding-glass door and onto the wooden patio. Two cobwebbed chairs sat near the railing, overlooking the apartment complex’s tennis courts and central lawn.
Lyle brushed off his seat with a tissue before sitting down.
“You know,” he said, “that’s a good advertisement for never getting married.”
“What’s that?” Shep asked.
Lyle pointed inside. “Your neighbors. It sounds like they were happy before they got married.”
“Well,” Shep said, “they definitely didn’t fight as much.”
“That’s what I’m saying. Maybe the permanence of their situation is sinking in, and they’re starting to have doubts. Their mutual hostility could be a subconscious manifestation of their fear — specifically, their fear of forever.”
Shep looked at him. “You take a couple of psychology courses in college?”
“No,” Lyle said. “I watched a lot of Frasier.”
“Hmm.” Shep shrugged. “You could be right, but it’s more likely they’re going through a phase. Sometimes people argue to feel each other out. They uncover the true essence of their love by coming to terms with their differences. It’s a way of molding two individual minds into one. If they keep it up, they’ll be finishing each other’s sentences in no time.”
“If the wife’s anything like Annabelle, she’ll not only be finishing his sentences — she’ll be starting them for him, too.”
Shep grinned. “Speaking of hostility….”
“I’m just kidding,” Lyle said. “Annabelle was never like that.”
“You know, it’s OK for you to show some anger toward her. It’d probably be healthy. After all, she did cheat on you.”
“I don’t hate Annabelle.”
“I know you don’t. That’s the problem. It’s clear you’re still very much in love with her.”
Lyle sighed and sipped his beer. “You don’t just throw away two years.”
“Why not? You threw away four getting a journalism degree.” Shep laughed.
“Hey, now.” Lyle smiled, pointing to himself. “Look where it’s gotten me.”
“Seriously, it’s OK for you to be angry at Annabelle,” Shep said. “I’m sure she expects it. A little anger’s always OK, as long as it’s not outright malice.”
“I could never bear malice against Annabelle.”
“Why? Because you still love her?”
“No. Because I’m saving it all for Brent.”
Shep laughed. “So I take it that bromance went down the tubes?”
“Down the tubes, to the edge of the ocean and off the face of the earth. Actually,” Lyle said, shrugging, “I haven’t spoken to him since the day I caught them — which is just as well. I can’t imagine what we’d say. It’s not the sort of thing you come to terms with over a couple of drinks and some small talk. Besides, that’s probably what got him and Annabelle into the whole mess to begin with.”
“I never liked the guy, myself,” Shep said. “I thought he was arrogant, uninformed and full of opinions. Where did you meet him, anyway?”
“In journalism school.”
“Oh, well there you go,” Shep said.
Lyle tilted his head back and drained his beer. “In any event,” he said, “I don’t hold bad feelings toward anybody. I don’t want to put that kind of energy into the world. It’s my choice how I feel, and I choose to feel happy for them.”
“Are they staying together?”
“No, they’ve broken up. Which is why I can feel happy for them.”
Shep laughed and finished his beer. “C’mon. I’ll help you unpack.”
As they stepped inside, the sound of throbbing bass pulsated from the next-door apartment.
“Ah, good.” Shep smiled.
“Good?” Lyle frowned, looking at Shep. “Why’s that good? They’re blasting music. Does that mean they’re still fighting?”
“No,” Shep said. “That means they’re having make-up sex. And trust me, you want the music.”
Thursday afternoon, four-thirty. Shep opened the apartment door to find Lyle slumped on the living-room couch, watching a talk show. A dozen or so empty beer cans lined the coffee table. A few had dropped to the floor.
“Hi honey — I’m home,” Shep said, closing the door.
Lyle moaned, shuffling. His eyes were half-closed.
“And I thought I had a rough day.” Shep kicked at one of the cans. “Any chance you’ve started dinner?”
Lyle opened an eye. He sighed audibly, licking his dry lips.
“Well?” Shep asked.
“Well, what?” Lyle’s voice was soft, and hoarse.
“Do you care to explain yourself?”
“I don’t care — period.” Lyle rolled his head back.
“You’re drunk, aren’t you?”
“Those twelve empty cans paint an incriminating picture.”
“Is that my beer you’re drinking?”
“Was your beer. Drank it. Both past tense.”
“Did you save one for me, at least?”
“I meant to get more before you came home.”
“Why didn’t you? Were you in the middle of Oprah?”
“No — I was too drunk to drive.”
“The store’s a five-minute walk.”
“I’d much rather drive. Who wants to lug a case of beer all the way from the store?”
“Uh-huh.” Shep settled into his recliner. His gaze moved from Lyle to the TV, then back to Lyle. “I didn’t know you were a fan of daytime TV.”
“It grows on you.”
“So does Athlete’s foot. That doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”
“Of course it’s not good for me. That’s why I’m drinking.”
“Drinking’s not good for you, either.”
“Then why did you buy all this beer?”
“I bought it for me! I enjoy a beer after work and a beer with dinner. You drank a whole week’s worth in one afternoon.”
“I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of misery in the last three months. That makes us even.”
“No — it makes you odd. Anyway, I thought you quit drinking.”
“I’m not a quitter.”
“You weren’t going to drink anymore till you found a job. Isn’t that what you said?”
“When I said that, jobs were easier to come by.”
“Lyle, what’s wrong with you? You’ve been acting weird all week.”
“It’s not like you to watch Oprah and drink in the middle of the day.”
Lyle shrugged. “The Oprah part I’ll give you.”
“Are you depressed about being unemployed? Is that it?”
“Not necessarily. Maybe this is how I express my joy.”
“Is now a good time to ask how the job search is going?”
“I think you can glean how well the job search is going. Just count the cans.”
“Are there openings?”
“If you know where to look.”
“Where are you supposed to look?”
“Hell if I know.”
“Have you tried the job-search sites?”
“Give me some credit, man. I didn’t spend all my time in journalism school sharpening pencils.”
“Well, it’s a fair question. Knowing you, you’d limit your job search to Craigslist.”
“Don’t go knocking Craigslist. That’s where I found my last job.”
“People don’t use Craigslist to find jobs. They use it to buy secondhand mattresses and discuss kinky sex.”
“It’s a one-stop shop. You can get a job, a bed and a gimp mask — all in the same place.”
“What kinds of jobs are out there right now?”
“Not many I’m qualified for.”
“What exactly are you qualified for? Scrubbing toilets and mopping floors?”
“I’d have to work my way up to mopping floors.”
“So is there anything out there you can do?”
“Not unless I land a gig sharpening pencils.”
Shep sighed, leaning back. “I feel for you, man. I really do. I wish I knew how to help.”
“If you want to help, you could drive me to the store.”
“Apart from supporting your alcohol habit, I mean.”
“You’re the one who needs beer every day. My alcoholism comes in spurts.”
“It comes when you’re depressed — and you’re depressed because you’re unemployed.”
Lyle nodded. “I tend to lose my spark when I’m adrift with no future.”
“I wish there were jobs where I’m at. I’d try to hook you up.”
“What do you do, by the way?”
“You don’t know?”
“It never came up.”
“That doesn’t matter. You could have asked. You live in my apartment; you should at least know what I do.”
“Based on the condition of this place, I’m guessing it’s nothing well-paying.”
“Up yours. And bear in mind, I can always kick you out and ask a girl to move in.”
“You might want to ask her to marry you, first. In a dump like this, it’ll take nuptial vows to get a woman to stay.”
“What will it take to get you to leave?”
“A well-paying job in a thriving economy, for starters. I’m not so needy when I’m self-sufficient.”
“Uh-huh.” Shep glared.
“What’s that look for?” Lyle asked.
“That cold, icy stare you’re giving me. That’s the same face Annabelle made when I suggested we move in together.”
“You don’t say?”
“Actually,” Lyle added, “now that I think about it, it’s also the same face you made when I suggested we move in together.”
“So you’re detecting a pattern.”
“What’s the face for? Did I say something wrong?”
“You seriously don’t know what I do with myself each day?”
“I suspect I do … and I imagine it’s because you can’t get a girl to move in.”
“I’m talking about my job, dude! You have no clue what I do for a living.”
“It never came up in conversation.”
“That’s because we’re always talking about you. The whole world revolves around you and your problems.”
“My problems are so large, they have a gravitational pull.”
“No — it’s because you’re too self-absorbed. Everyone has problems, Lyle. You’re too focused on yours to see anyone else’s.”
“Mine take priority. Let me solve my own problems before tackling everyone else’s.”
“I have problems too, you know,” Shep said. “Cassie and I broke up, and I’m stuck in a job that I hate.”
“Why do you hate your job? What do you do?”
“Forget it. You never cared before, so I’m not telling you now.”
“Fine. That’s your problem.”
“Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. Everyone has problems, and mine are as valid as yours.”
“You know what would help with your problems?” Lyle asked. “A beer.”
“That’s an excellent idea. Trouble is, some idiot drank it all.”
“What can I say? My problems don’t seem so bad when they’re watered down with alcohol.”
“All right — that’s it.” Shep reached into his pocket and pulled out his keys, twirling them on his finger.
“You’re leaving? You just got home.”
“I’m running to the store. I’ll grab us some beer and a couple of microwave dinners.”
“Actually, that’s a great idea— the best I’ve heard all day, in fact.”
“Well,” Shep said, “not to brag, but my problem-solving skills are the reason I got my job.”
“What do you do? Now I have to know, or else it’ll drive me crazy.”
Shep grinned. “That’s your problem. See you.”
Wednesday morning, ten-thirty. Lyle walked into a downtown office building carrying a leather satchel and wearing a dark suit with a striped tie.
The building’s ground floor housed a bank, as well as a series of small offices. A steady flow of people wandered in and out through the bank’s glass doors, while others milled in the building’s lobby, drinking Starbucks coffee and reading newspapers. Lyle walked toward the elevator, his posture rigid with purpose, and gazed at the building’s directory, which stood encased in a thin frame atop a waist-high metal pole.
He went upstairs to an office, checked in, and sat in the waiting room, tapping his foot. The minutes dragged out for hours.
“Mr. Collins?” the receptionist said,
“Mr. Albert and Ms. Gabor will see you now.”
“Perfect. Thank you.” Lyle’s mouth went dry, and his heart started hammering. Slowly, he stood up from the uncomfortable couch where he’d been sitting, waiting for his interview. He picked up his leather satchel and ran his hand along his pants, to smooth out the wrinkles.
The receptionist gave him a knowing smile. “It’s your first door on the left, sir.”
“Thank you.” Lyle could barely speak. His throat felt hoarse and sandpapery.
The receptionist tilted her head. “Would you care for a glass of water, sir?”
“No thank you.”
“Are you sure? Because you sound like you could use a glass of water.”
“I’m fine. Thank you. Just allergies.”
“Would you like some allergy medicine? I have some in my purse.”
“No, no, I’m fine. Please. Thank you.”
“Just a glass of water then, without the medicine?”
Lyle forced a grin. “No water, please. Thank you.”
The receptionist sniffed. “Fine. Whatever. First door on the left.” She turned and hammered away on her keyboard, angrily.
Walking to the first door on the left felt like trudging to an execution. Lyle tried to breathe deeply, to relax, but he couldn’t breathe … which put a damper on his breathing deeply.
A middle-aged man with silver hair met him at the door. “Mr. Collins?”
“Mr. Albert.” The man pumped his hand, crushing Lyle’s fingers. Lyle tried not to wince. “This way, this way. Have a seat at the head of the table, young man. Let’s get this party started.”
A woman stood up as Lyle entered the room. “Mr. Collins, I’m Ms. Gabor.”
“Ms. Gabor. Nice to meet you.”
“And you’ve met Mr. Albert?”
“Mr. Collins and I have met, yes.” Mr. Albert took a seat at a long conference table, which seemed to fill the entire room. “Please, Mr. Collins — sit, sit.”
Lyle sat, almost falling into the plush leather chair. He sunk into it like an inflatable raft. Already, he was sweating inside his suit, and he was sure his pants were wrinkling.
“Thank you for seeing us today,” Mr. Albert said, as both he and Ms. Gabor shuffled papers in front of them. “We’ve been reviewing your resume. Your qualifications are quite impressive.”
“Are you sure it’s my resume? That doesn’t sound like me,” Lyle croaked, trying to smile.
“I was just — thank you.”
“Would you like a glass of water, Mr. Collins?” Ms. Gabor asked.
Lyle shook his head. “No, ma’am. I’m OK. Thank you.”
“Are you sure? Because you sound like you could use a glass of water.”
“I’m sure. Thank you.”
“It’d be no trouble at all. I could ask the receptionist. She’d be more than happy to bring it to you.”
“No, no. I appreciate it, but I’m fine. Please. Thank you.”
“Let me call her,” Ms. Gabor said, reaching for the disc-shaped conference-room phone sitting on the table. “She won’t mind.”
“Please! No water!” Lyle forced a grin. “I’m quite all right. Thank you.”
Ms. Gabor drummed her fingers on the tabletop, glaring angrily.
“Yes, well, then,” Mr. Albert said, “let’s get down to business.” He tore through some papers. “So you’re here for the interactive media manager position. Correct?”
“Well then,” Mr. Albert said, leaning back in his chair and slipping off his reading glasses, “my first question to you would be this: Why do you think you’d make a good interactive media manager?”
Lyle swallowed. Both Mr. Albert and Ms. Gabor were now staring at him, intently.
“Well,” Lyle croaked. He paused, cleared his dry throat, and started again. “Well … clearly … clearly, I’ve made a career out of interacting with the media. And, uh … as you can tell, I have a lot of passion. I have a fire inside — that’s how passionate I am.”
Mr. Albert nodded. “Passion’s good. Passion’s very good.”
“Yes,” Ms. Gabor said. “Passion’s what we’re looking for.”
“And I have it,” Lyle said. “I do. Sometimes it might not seem like I do, but … I do.”
“Tell us a little about your work history,” Mr. Albert said.
“My work history?”
“Yes. Your career, how you got started in the industry.”
“Oh. Right.” Lyle licked his lips. “Well, I started out at a local newspaper doing proofreading. Over the months, I was able to work my way up to editing.”
“What did you edit and proofread?” Mr. Albert asked.
“Supplements. Advertising supplements. You know, the special sections in the middle of the paper?”
“The supplements are the first things I throw away when I open a newspaper,” Ms. Gabor said.
“Oh.” Lyle wrung his hands under the table. “That’s … um. That’s a good point.”
Mr. Albert waved him on. “What prompted you to leave the newspaper?”
“Well, unfortunately … I got laid off.”
Mr. Albert leaned back. “That is unfortunate.”
“Indeed,” Ms. Gabor echoed.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Lyle said. “I mean, I wasn’t laid off because I was expendable, or anything.”
“If you were let go, then clearly you were expendable.”
“No — I swear. It was because I lacked seniority. That was why. It was an age thing.”
Mr. Albert and Ms. Gabor looked at each other, eyebrows raised.
“I’m telling the truth,” Lyle said. “They even gave me a letter saying it wasn’t my fault.”
“Do you have a copy of said letter?” Ms. Gabor asked.
“I … no. I lost it.”
“You lost it?”
Lyle nodded. “I lost it.”
“Well,” Ms. Gabor said, “it seems like too important a document to simply lose. Do you make a habit of misplacing such critical items?”
“No, of course not.”
“Because we certainly don’t want somebody on our staff with a propensity for losing things.”
“Well, I didn’t really lose it, per se. What happened was, I ripped up the letter and threw it away.”
Ms. Gabor frowned. “You threw it away?”
“I’d just been laid off, and I was very upset. Certainly you can understand.”
Mr. Albert set down his pencil. “Do you have a problem controlling your temper, Lyle?”
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Because we certainly don’t want somebody on our staff who can’t control his temper.”
“And I don’t have a problem. I swear.”
“Really?” Ms. Gabor asked. “Because if I may say, you seem a little upset.”
“I’m not upset. Really. I’m just … nervous.”
“I think I can tell the difference between nervous and upset,” Ms. Gabor said. “And you seem upset to me.”
Lyle wiped a sheet of sweat off his forehead. “I’m totally calm. I assure you, there’s no anger or animosity here.”
“You just said you have a fire inside. It’s a fair question.”
“I meant a fire of passion. That’s what I meant. Not a fire of hatred.”
“No hatred. Only passion.” Lyle tried to grin, to demonstrate confidence … but it looked more like he was being electrocuted.
“Hmm.” Ms. Gabor narrowed her eyes, then jotted some notes on the paper before her.
Lyle swallowed. His throat felt thick and gooey, and suddenly the room was stifling warm.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but would it be possible for me to get a glass of water?”
“I’m sure you’re well aware, Lyle,” Mr. Albert said, “that as an interactive media manager, you’ll be responsible for analyzing key data and metrics. Much of the job involves monitoring various, ongoing marketing campaigns and determining their effectiveness in achieving strategic goals. I assume you have ample experience with website analytics?”
Lyle looked at him, blinking.
Mr. Albert frowned. “You have no experience with website analytics?”
“You mean like … website traffic?”
Mr. Albert shot a look at Ms. Gabor, then turned back to Lyle. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
“No, no — I do. I’ve run a website before.”
“Of course. I have lots of experience designing and maintaining websites.”
“OK, good.” Mr. Albert leaned back. “Tell us about it, then.”
“Well, to be honest, it was more like a single website, as opposed to multiple websites.”
Mr. Albert’s eyebrows rose. “Go on.”
“And it wasn’t so much a corporate website as a personal website.”
“What kind of personal website?”
“Well.” Lyle swallowed. “It was a family-reunion site. You know, with pictures and stuff. Multimedia components, you might say.” He forced a grin.
“So you have a working-level knowledge of HTML, CSS and XML?” Ms. Gabor asked.
Lyle’s grin faded. “Well … not exactly.”
“How about Dreamweaver, Visio and Photoshop?”
Lyle bit his lower lip.
Ms. Gabor glared. “How exactly did you design the site?”
“I used iWeb.”
“iWeb?” Ms. Gabor sucked in a breath.
“Yeah. Before Apple discontinued it, I mean.”
Mr. Albert and Ms. Gabor stared at each other.
Lyle fidgeted. “I know it’s not industry-standard, but iWeb’s great for designing small, family-centered sites. You can drag-and-drop graphics, and you don’t have to know an ounce of HTML. Which I don’t, if that’s one of your questions.”
“You never learned?” Ms. Gabor asked.
“I never needed to. I had iWeb.”
Mr. Albert closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Did you at least measure your website traffic?”
“What analytical tools did you use?”
“Well, I didn’t use tools, per se. I just asked family members if they’d visited it. Their responses gave me a rough approximation of the site’s traffic.”
“And what was your approximation?”
“About four: My grandpa, my cousin and my parents. Actually, five — if you include me. I looked at it quite a bit.” Lyle shrugged. “I was pretty proud of my work.”
Ms. Gabor stared at Mr. Albert, her lips pursed.
Lyle swallowed. “I know it’s not a conventional way to measure web traffic, but it does demonstrate that I’m a creative problem-solver when resources are limited. Wouldn’t you say?”
“Lyle,” Mr. Albert said, leaning forward, “you do understand you’re applying for a marketing position, correct?”
“But you have no apparent marketing experience.”
“I have advertising experience.”
“Advertising and marketing are two very different things.”
“Really?” Lyle frowned. “I always thought they were two parts of the same field.”
“No — they’re two completely different fields.”
“But people always make it sound like they’re the same thing.”
“Then those people don’t know what they’re talking about. If anything, advertising is only a small facet of marketing. Marketing includes many components — most of which you don’t seem to understand.”
“I majored in journalism. Does that mean anything?”
“It does. It means you’re plainly unqualified to be an interactive media manager.”
“I also took courses in advertising and public relations.”
“You’re still unqualified.”
“So what you’re telling me,” Lyle said, “is that I should have majored in marketing?”
“To be qualified for this position, yes.”
“So advertising has nothing to do with marketing? Huh.” Lyle frowned. “I wish they’d made that point clearer in journalism school.”
“Did you think you were applying for an advertising position?” Ms. Gabor asked.
“No. I knew I was applying for a marketing position. I just thought I was qualified for it.”
“I hope we’ve thoroughly dispelled you of the notion,” Ms. Gabor said.
“I’m sure you’d perform well in an advertising position,” Mr. Albert said. “But here, not so much. We need someone with desirable skills, you understand.”
“Is there any possibility of me learning on the job?” Lyle asked. “If you’ll remember, I’m a creative problem-solver. We established that point only a moment ago.”
Mr. Albert stood. “I think we’re about done here. Don’t you think so, Ms. Gabor?”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Ms. Gabor said.
Mr. Albert reached out to shake Lyle’s hand. “It’s been nice meeting with you today, young man. Thank you very much for speaking to us.”
Lyle stood, giving Mr. Albert a weak handshake. “Does this mean the interview’s over?”
“And I have absolutely no chance of getting the position?”
“Should I see myself out?”
“Thank you.” Lyle turned to Ms. Gabor and nodded. “Thank you both for speaking with me.”
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out,” Ms. Gabor said.
Lyle turned to leave, but then paused. “Can I ask just one thing before I go?”
“You may,” Mr. Albert said. “But whatever it is, I assure you: you’ll never be qualified for the position.”
“No, I know. I’m well aware of my pitiful inadequacy. But further down the road, do you anticipate your company needing somebody with my skill set?”
Mr. Albert frowned. “Did we establish that you even have a skill set?”
“Yes! I’m a journalism major, remember?”
“That’s playing a little fast and loose with the term ‘skill set’, isn’t it?”
Lyle glared. “Would you foresee any opportunities down the road for me — or not?”
“Most definitely not,” Mr. Albert said. “At least not at this company.”
“Actually,” Ms. Gabor added, “not at any company.”
Lyle’s face fell. “Oh.”
“There’s not a huge demand for journalism majors these days.”
“And we would know that, of course,” Ms. Gabor said, “because we’re a marketing company. People pay us to analyze data. And the data are not in your favor.”
“Oh.” Lyle nodded. “Right.”
“Does that answer your question?” she asked.
“Yes.” Lyle nodded. “It does. Thank you.”
Mr. Albert held open the door. “If you’re looking to learn more about the marketing industry, feel free to follow us on Facebook and LinkedIn. We post lots of informative articles about the business.”
“Thank you.” Lyle stepped out the door, then paused. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to need a journalism major to write those articles, would you?”
“Get out,” Mr. Albert said.
The cab pulled in front of a nondescript nightclub, depositing Lyle and Shep on the curb. The evening was cool and breezy, with the wind whipping through their hair. The muffled bass of a techno beat pulsated from the building.
“You sure you’re feeling all right?” Shep asked.
“Because we can head home if you want.”
“No, I’m good. I’m glad we’re going out. I’ve been stuck at home for too long.”
“You’re telling me. You’ve been harder to remove than the fungus growing in the shower.” Shep reached into his pocket for some money. “You ready to dance and meet some women?”
“I’m not sure the two go together. You ever seen me dance?”
“Men with moves get all the chicks.”
“My signature move is staggering out of a bar and puking on the sidewalk. Does that count?”
“I think you need to get a little more coordinated.” Shep motioned toward the entrance. “C’mon, let’s go.”
“You go ahead. I’m going to hang out here for a sec.”
“Why? It’s windy.”
“I need some air. I’ve just been feeling a little down lately, after my latest job interview and all.”
Shep looked at him. “You’re sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine. It’s good.”
“If you want to go home, just say so.”
“I wouldn’t want to ruin your evening.”
“Why stop now? You’ve been ruining my life since the day you moved in.”
“I don’t need to burden you with my problems. We came here to have fun.”
“Yeah, but half the fun for me is laughing at your problems.”
Lyle waved him off. “I’m serious, man. You go ahead; I’ll be right behind you.”
“Whatever. If you’re sure.” Shep dug in his pocket and handed Lyle a twenty. “Here — you’ll need this for the cover. Don’t be too long, all right? I don’t want to come looking for you and find you face-planted on the sidewalk.”
“Don’t worry; I might not be coordinated, but I think I can walk fifteen feet.”
“With each step following a different line, maybe.” Shep grinned. “All right, man. See you in there.” He turned and trekked toward the entrance.
Lyle waited until Shep was gone, then dug in his pocket for his iPhone. He scrolled through his contacts, landing on a familiar name. His spine stiffened, and he hesitated, his thumb hovering over the screen.
The seconds ticked by, and with each one Lyle’s resolve grew weaker and weaker. Finally, sucking in a deep breath and closing his eyes, he pushed the button to call.
The line rang several times. Lyle paced back and forth along the sidewalk, holding the phone to his ear. He clicked off the second Annabelle’s voicemail answered.
“This was stupid,” he said aloud, mumbling, staring at the phone cupped in his palm. “Stupid, stupid, stupid. Now she knows you called.”
He was about to slide the iPhone back into his pocket when it started buzzing. Lyle jumped. He looked down and saw Annabelle’s name and picture lit up on the screen.
He let it ring three times before swiping the screen to answer. “Yeah? I mean … hello?”
His throat tightened at the sound of Annabelle’s voice. “Uh-huh.” Suddenly, his mouth and tongue were parched.
There was silence for a couple of seconds, and for a moment he thought he lost her. “Yeah,” he said, louder, holding the phone to his ear. “Annabelle? It’s me.”
“Did you just call me?” Her voice was wavering, tense.
He forced a laugh. “Yeah. Um. The thing is … I think I pocket-dialed you. I just pulled out my phone and saw the screen was lit up.”
“Where are you? Your voice sounds hollow.”
“I’m … outside.”
“What’s that noise?”
“A garbage truck just drove past.”
“It sounds like you’re on a freeway. You’re all tinny. I can’t hear you very well.”
He walked farther into the parking lot. “Can you hear me now? Is that better?”
“Lyle?” Annabelle’s voice was fainter.
“Wait.” Lyle crossed the parking lot, moving away from the building and into an open area. “How about now? Annabelle?”
“Yeah. That’s a little better.”
“Sorry about that. Must be a weird part of town.”
“Lyle, do you know what time it is?”
He looked at his watch. It was well after ten. “Sorry. I guess it’s late.”
“What are you doing, anyway?”
“I’m just out. With Shep,” he added quickly.
“Where are you?”
“At a bar. A sports bar. We were getting a late dinner.” He swallowed, trying to moisten his dry throat. “Where are you?”
“Oh. I hope you weren’t in bed. I mean – I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“Me and Karen were watching TV.”
“Oh, yeah. You have a roommate now. I heard.”
“Lyle, your voice sounds different.”
“We have a bad connection.”
“No – you’re slurring. Are you drunk, Lyle?”
“Well, I just came from a bar. I might have had a couple of beers, to celebrate Shep’s success.”
“What did Shep do?”
“He finally convinced me to get out of the apartment. I think he’s afraid I’ll get attached to the place and never leave.” Lyle tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a hiccup.
Silence. After a moment, Annabelle asked, “Have you found a job yet?”
“Well, still looking. Damn things are getting harder to find these days. I’m starting to regret not finishing college.”
“I thought you did finish college?”
“No – I got a journalism degree, so it doesn’t count. In fact, I think it falls under the realm of pissing your life away.”
“You must be drunk. You’re being self-deprecating.”
“Oh, come on now. You know I don’t need a reason to hate myself.”
“Lyle, where’s Shep? Maybe he should take you home.”
“I think he ditched me while I was talking to you. He seized the opportunity to flee into the night. Look! That’s his car screaming down the back alley as we speak. It’s got a flame shooting out the tailpipe, like the Batmobile.”
“Lyle, I’m going to hang up. I’m missing my show.”
A pause. “Yes?”
“I just wanted to say ‘hi.’”
“And I’m going to say ‘bye.’ Goodnight, Lyle.”
“No, wait. Please don’t hang up. Annabelle?”
“Lyle, go home. It’s late.”
“Annabelle, I … it just seems like we never get to talk anymore.”
“That’s because we broke up. That’s what couples do when they break up, Lyle. They stop talking.”
“Well … maybe we didn’t say everything that needs to be said.”
Annabelle was silent for a couple of seconds. “What more needs to be said?”
Lyle crossed the expansive parking lot and leaned his back against a chain-link fence. “Do you think we did the right thing?” he asked.
“I … I don’t know how to respond to that. We broke up.”
“But maybe we shouldn’t have. That’s what I’m saying. Maybe we could … I don’t know — talk about it some more?”
Annabelle took a deep breath. “I don’t think we should be having this conversation, Lyle. Especially when you’re drunk.”
“Don’t use my drinking as an excuse. We used to do plenty when I was drunk.”
“I know we did — but only because you were drunk every other day.”
“Don’t sell me short — I was drunk every day. You know how much I hated my job.”
“Lyle, please. You call me out of the blue after all these months. What am I supposed to say?”
“I’m hoping for three little words. And preferably not ‘Hang up, jerk.’”
Annabelle sighed. “Lyle, we can’t just pretend like nothing ever happened.”
“What happened? Besides us breaking up, I mean?”
“I cheated on you! Don’t you understand the ramifications of that?”
“I wouldn’t beat yourself up over it. Sleeping with Brent is punishment enough.”
“Well, I do beat myself up over it – I beat myself up every day. I hate what I did. Living with the knowledge of what I’ve done has been the absolute worst punishment I could possibly imagine.”
“Even worse of a punishment than living with me?”
“I’m serious, Lyle!”
“Look,” Lyle said, “I forgive you for what you did. OK? I forgive you. I understand why it happened.”
“No – it’s not as simple as writing it off. We can’t … we can’t just forget it ever happened.”
“But I want to. I want to forget it ever happened. Don’t my feelings count?”
Annabelle hiccuped. Either that, or she was crying. Lyle couldn’t tell which.
“You said you did it because we fell out of love,” Lyle said. “So, let’s put it behind us and fall back into love. Seems simple, right?”
“No.” Annabelle’s voice was cold, and Lyle could tell right away that she hadn’t been crying. Maybe he had only hoped she had been crying, so he could feel like he had the upper hand.
“It’s not simple,” Annabelle continued. “None of it’s simple. We’re not the same people we used to be.”
“You keep saying that, but aren’t people allowed to change? Of course I’m not the same person I used to be. And in ten years from now, I’ll be an even different person. That’s life. People grow and evolve.”
“Do they, Lyle? Do they really? Because if there’s anyone I’ve ever known who vigorously resists change, it’s you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“C’mon, Lyle. You know exactly what I’m talking about. If there’s anything you cling to tighter than a beer bottle, it’s the past.”
“That’s only because I was happy in the past … and I was happy because I was with you.”
“If that were true, then you wouldn’t have been so miserable the whole time we were together.”
“It wasn’t you! It never was you! It was my job I couldn’t stand. I hated being an executive assistant.”
“Then why did you take all your frustration out on me?”
“I didn’t realize I was. At the time, I mean.”
“Seriously? Coming home and putting away a six-pack every night and complaining about your life – all for my benefit, of course – and you didn’t realize you were taking it out of me?”
“Like I said, at the time.”
“Forget it, Lyle. What’s done is done. We can’t go back to what we had, because we never had anything to begin with.”
“How can you possibly say that?”
“Because all we had was a couple of years anyway, and you were miserable for most of it. You never made me feel wanted. All you cared about was complaining about your stupid job and reminiscing about your failed career.”
“That job’s gone. I don’t even have it now. You know that.”
“So is that why you want to reconcile? Now that you’re unemployed, you finally have the time to acknowledge my existence?”
“I got all the time in the world, baby. I’m a hapless loser with no hope of finding work. If it’s my attention you want, you got it.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t want it anymore. That ship sailed. I tried everything I could when we were together to get your attention – even going so far as to sleep with your best friend. That was the first time in seven months that you really noticed me … so I guess it did the trick.”
Annabelle’s voice broke, and Lyle’s throat constricted. He couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Please don’t call me anymore,” Annabelle said, her voice shaking. “We’re done. There’s no way I could look at you every day and not think about what I did. And even if I could, I don’t think I can be with someone who clings so desperately to a past life that’s never coming back.”
“Is this about you feeling guilty for cheating on me? Because if it is, I don’t know how to tell you any more clearly that I don’t care. Plenty of couples recover from cheating. I mean, we weren’t even married, for Pete’s sake. Neither of us took any vows. We could have just been on a break, for all anybody knows.”
“You didn’t hear me, Lyle. It’s more than that. You and I are two very different people. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point we took off in different directions. We just don’t have a connection anymore.”
“Plus, you cling to the past. Right now is a perfect example. You’re too scared to face the future, so you picture a time when you thought you were happy, and you try to recreate those circumstances in your life. The thing is, Lyle, you can never reclaim the past. Those days are long gone. But you always get so frustrated when you can’t make things the way they were, and then you withdraw and get depressed. At some point, you’re going to have to realize that the present’s not that bad, and that the future is only what you make of it.”
“I’m tired of people telling me I’m afraid. Nobody knows how I feel.”
“Who else is telling you you’re afraid? Shep?”
“Of course. He seizes every available opportunity to lecture me.”
“That’s only because he cares about you. And I care about you, too.”
“Enough to come back?”
“This isn’t productive, Lyle. And we’ve been talking for a long time. We should probably hang up now.”
“Don’t go. Please.”
“I’m going to hang up now, Lyle.” Annabelle’s voice was soft.
“Don’t go. Just … don’t go.” Lyle slid his back down the fence, landing hard on his haunches. He stared ahead at the brightly lit parking lot, which started to blur till all the streetlights were nothing more than huge, crystallized orange blobs in his vision.
A few seconds passed where neither of them said anything. Lyle knew that Annabelle hadn’t hung up, though; he could still her breathing.
“Come back to me,” Lyle said, his voice choking.
Annabelle didn’t reply.
“Please,” Lyle said. “I’m on my knees, here. Well, OK – I’m not on my knees; I’m on my ass. But still, I’m vulnerable — and I’m begging you to come back. Promise me you’ll think about it, at least.”
Annabelle took a deep, long breath.
“I have to go,” she said, after a couple of agonizing moments.
“No. Don’t go.”
“I have to.”
Lyle’s stomach sank. “But we didn’t resolve anything.”
“Yes, we did.” Annabelle paused. “Goodbye, Lyle.”
But the phone clicked off in his ear.
The night was thick and silent; the only sound Lyle heard was the rustling wind as it ripped through his hair.
Slowly, he clambered to his feet, using the fence for support. His iPhone fumbled from his sweaty hand and fell to the ground. He bent over to retrieve it, brushing away the dirt.
He stared at the screen, which now was dark and encrusted with dust. The mirror-like surface reflected the bright parking-lot lights.
Lyle reeled back and chucked the phone with all his strength. It made a most-satisfying metallic clunk when it landed several feet away, sliding across the hard asphalt.
As Lyle slowly came awake, he groaned in agony. His head felt like it was locked in a vice, and his mouth, throat and eyeballs were dry and sticky.
He was lying sprawled on a lawn chair on Shep’s apartment patio, his shoes kicked off and shirt half-unbuttoned. A series of empty beer bottles lined the railing. Others were overturned and lying on the patio.
The morning sun was rising over the distant mountains, casting a grayish, murky glow on the darkened landscape. Lyle sat up and massaged his temples, his eyes squeezed tightly shut.
It took him awhile to regain his senses. He tried to remember what had happened the previous night, but the images were fragmented and blurry. He had no idea how he had gotten home, or why he’d been sleeping on the patio and not in his own bed.
Lyle tried to stand, but he wavered and plopped back down on the lawn chair, nearly tipping it. A wave of nausea overcame him, and he had to look down. A sour belch escaped his lips … which helped relieve the bloated pressure in his stomach.
Minutes passed before Lyle could move or even raise his head. By then the sun had risen higher, clearing the mountain peaks and invigorating everything it touched with a renewed sense of purpose.
Everything, that is, except for Lyle. He licked his chapped lips and ran a hand through his hair, which was all tangled and ratty like an electrocuted clown.
Lyle heard movement inside the apartment. He turned and saw Shep rummaging around in the kitchen, wearing a bathrobe and making coffee. The sliding door was wide open, but the screen remained shut.
Shep spotted him. “Hey, morning!” he called though the screen. “Want some coffee?”
Lyle nodded. “Please,” he croaked.
Shep stepped outside, handing Lyle a steaming mug and keeping one for himself. “Man, if you feel even half as bad you look, then you’ve got to be miserable.”
“Misery’s more or less a permanent condition these days,” Lyle said, sipping his coffee. It left a sick, bitter flavor on his sandpapery tongue, and he winced. “What even happened last night?”
“Exactly what I was afraid would happen if I left you alone. You never came into the nightclub, so I walked outside and found you sitting on the sidewalk with your head in your hands, crying.”
“I was crying?”
“Not overtly. You tried to hide it, but I could tell. Your eyes were all tear-filled and bloodshot.”
“My eyes always look like that now that I’m unemployed and my life has no meaning.”
“Well, they seemed puffier than usual. You were really upset about something.”
“Did I say anything that might have given a clue?”
“You were babbling about something, but it wasn’t coherent.”
“You couldn’t make out anything I was saying?”
“Well, I stopped listening after awhile. It’s like those times when you’re whining about losing your job – I just lost interest and tuned you out.”
“I appreciate the support.”
“Hey, who do you think dragged you home and set you up out here?”
“So I got you to blame for the spasm in my back and the blood clot in my legs. Why would you set me out here and not in my own bed?”
“Why else? You were gagging like a cat yakking on a hairball. I don’t need any more stains on the carpet to explain to the landlord.”
Lyle shook his head, taking another sip of coffee. “Last night’s a complete blur. I don’t remember anything after the Silver Tavern.”
“So you have no way to explain this?” Shep took something off the patio table and handed it to Lyle.
Lyle stared. “Is this my phone?”
“You tell me. You were holding it when I found you.”
Lyle turned the battered phone over in his palm. It had a cracked screen and busted case. “Well, this might explain why I was crying. I’ve only had this thing for six months. I saved for weeks to get it.”
“Do you remember dropping it – or maybe breaking it on purpose?”
“Why would I break my own phone?”
“Who knows? Maybe you asked Siri if you could buy her a drink, and she shot you down. She does come across as conceited.”
A flicker of a memory shot through Lyle’s head, and his eyes widened. “Oh, no.”
Shep sat down on the lawn chair across from him. “What?”
“I remember now. I think I might have called Annabelle.”
“I’m almost positive.”
“The conversation couldn’t have ended well if you broke your own phone.”
“I don’t remember what we said, but knowing me, I begged her to come back. And knowing her, she probably said no.”
“I should have been monitoring you. Friends don’t like friends dial drunk.”
Lyle sighed, resting his head on his knees. “I hope I didn’t make a complete fool of myself.”
“Well,” Shep said, “when it comes to making a fool of yourself, you’re pretty thorough.” He kicked at a bottle, sending it rolling toward the patio railing. “At some point today, I got to pick up my car. We left it in the nightclub parking lot.”
“Good – maybe my dignity’s with it. It wasn’t here when I woke up.”
“Lyle, your dignity’s been missing for a long time. You must really be hungover if you’re just now noticing.”
Lyle sighed. “I’m worried about what I might have said to Annabelle. It’s making me feel sick inside.”
“That’s the hangover that’s making you feel sick inside.”
“I mean it. My stomach’s in knots worrying about it.”
“I wouldn’t worry about Annabelle. She knows you get sentimental when you drink.”
“I wasn’t sentimental – I was just plain mental.”
“Yeah, well, I’m sure she knows that, too.” Shep leaned back, sipping his coffee. “You know, I was thinking about something. A way to help you, I mean. I’m not sure you’ll like it, though.”
“I spent last night sleeping outdoors on a filthy patio with a beer bottle up my ass. Clearly, I need all the help I can get.”
“Well, remember at the bar, before we went to the nightclub, when you were talking about giving up on your writing?”
“I think so. Those memories are relatively intact, but hazy. Sort of like my will to live.”
“Well, the way I see it, you have two problems.”
“Take a good look at me, Shep. I think I have way more than two problems.”
“For the sake of simplicity, we’ll focus on two of your infinite problems. The first one, of course, is that you can’t get over Annabelle.”
“Correct. As evidenced by my cringe-worthy phone call and abject desperation.”
“The second is that you gave up on your writing, which you said was a passion of yours at one time.”
“Back when I believed that life had something to offer, yes.”
“Well, my idea was this: Why not combine the two? Write about Annabelle and everything that she meant to you. Putting your thoughts down on paper will help you come to terms with your relationship. Plus, it’ll get you writing again, which you said is what you really love.”
Lyle stared. “Are you as hung over as I am, or are you still outright drunk?”
“I’m serious, man. I think it’s a great idea. They say keeping a diary is a terrific therapeutic tool.”
“Real men don’t keep diaries. They keep journals.”
“Yeah, but you’re not a real man. That’s a long-established fact.” Shep grinned. “Come on. I think it would help you a lot.”
“You thought getting me out of the apartment and having a night on the town would help me a lot. Now look at me.”
“Clearly, you have a lot of unresolved emotions about Annabelle. I imagine they’re crawling through your subconscious like worms. Wouldn’t it help to put them down on paper, to purge them from your system?”
“I think I need to purge my system right now. This coffee’s turning my stomach.”
“Well, think about it, at least, will you? You need help, and I know you can’t afford therapy.”
“But I can still afford alcohol, so I haven’t hit rock-bottom yet.”
Shep shook his head and drained his mug.
“I do appreciate it, though,” Lyle said, closing his eyes and massaging his head.
“Your thinking of me. And taking me out last night. I hope I didn’t ruin your evening.”
“Of course you didn’t ruin my evening. You’ve already ruined my life by moving in. The evening was just a small part.”
“I’m serious, man. You’re more than just my cousin. You’re my best friend.”
“Don’t lay that label on me just yet. The last person who wore that badge ended up sleeping with your girlfriend, remember?”
Lyle grinned. “I’m just sorry we didn’t meet any women last night. I know that was the plan.”
“Shep?” A woman’s voice called from deep inside the apartment. “Shep? Where are you?”
Lyle looked up at Shep, his mouth open. Shep grinned.
“Actually, I did meet someone,” Shep said. “At the nightclub.” He nodded toward the apartment. “We spent the night together … which was another good reason to set you up out here. You know how thin these walls are.”
Lyle shook his head. “You’re amazing.”
Shep nodded, grinning. “I know.”
“Shep?” The woman’s voice was louder.
“Coming!” Shep said. He stood up and opened the screen door. Before walking inside, he looked down at Lyle. “You going to be OK?”
“Yeah.” Lyle nodded.
“You think you’ll take my advice?”
“Maybe. We’ll see.”
“You’re skeptical it’ll work?”
“Not so much skeptical as scared. It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything. I’m not sure I’ll remember how.”
“Just start somewhere. That’s the trick to everything, right? You got to start somewhere if you want to get anywhere. You can’t be afraid.”
“There you go,” Lyle said. “Right there.”
Shep tilted his head. “What?”
“I think you just identified my biggest weakness.”
Tuesday afternoon, four-thirty. Shep came home to find Lyle on the living-room couch, his laptop propped open.
“What’s up?” Shep asked.
Lyle looked up, grinning. “Hey, man. I’m taking your advice.”
“Yeah. You suggested I start writing about Annabelle, to help me get over her. I thought I’d start today.”
“No kidding?” Shep leaned against a bookshelf. “How’s it going?”
“Not too bad. I haven’t actually started writing, yet. I’m just jotting down ideas.”
“Well, like I said, you’ve got to start somewhere, right?” Shep strolled into the kitchen. “I’m going to grab a beer. You want one?”
“No thanks. I’m back to not drinking.”
“Good – I’m glad to hear it. It’s nice to come home and fine you in an optimistic mood.”
“No, I’m still a bitter, cold-hearted cynic. I just won’t slur as much, is all.”
“Ah.” Shep opened the fridge and popped open a Coors. “It smells good in here. Is something cooking?”
“Tuna Helper. It should be ready in a few minutes. It’s simmering.”
“It smells pretty good.”
“I added peas and replaced the tuna with Atlantic pink salmon. You only live once, so why not do so in style?”
“Is it a special occasion, or something?”
“Kinda. I’ve decided to make some changes in my life.”
“Those changes wouldn’t involve limiting the processed foods in our diet, would it?”
“Too big of a leap right now. I’m focusing on having a better attitude and expressing gratitude for the things I have.”
“Shouldn’t take long. You don’t have much.”
“See – that’s something the old Lyle would say. The new Lyle is counting his blessings and showing appreciation for even the smallest of things.”
“By showing appreciation, do you possibly mean helping to pay the rent?”
“I’m talking in more of an abstract sense. I want to convey an aura of positivity at everything I come across.”
“Let me know if you come across a job. I could use help on the rent.”
“The old Lyle would take a comment like that to heart and feel bad about himself. The new Lyle realizes you’re only teasing, and he’s taking the comment in stride.”
“This new Lyle sounds a little naïve and assuming. Maybe my comment was intended to make you feel bad about yourself.”
“I’m not naïve at all,” Lyle said, closing his laptop and setting it aside. He stood and walked to the kitchen to check on dinner. “I just realized that I’ve spent so much of my life immersed in a stagnant swamp of negativity. I want to be energetic and happy – which I why I want to cook more and help out around the apartment.”
“Speaking of stagnant swamps, if you want to help out more, you can clean the bathroom when you’re done using it. Also, you can start cooking real foods, instead of this processed garbage.”
“So you’re saying peas and Atlantic pink salmon aren’t real foods?”
“No, they’re only helping the Tuna Helper — which, by the way, needs all the help it can get. Kind of like you.”
Lyle glared. “It’s like you’re trying to slice through my positive aura today. Don’t you want me to be happy?”
“Of course I want you to be happy. I just figured I’d give you some helpful suggestions, now that you’ve decided to become useful all of a sudden.”
Lyle sucked in a breath through his nostrils. “The new Lyle isn’t prone to knee-jerk reactions or responding to perceived insults. He’ll kindly ignore that mark and continue cooking this awesome dinner.”
“It does look awesome. All it’s missing is the crumbled potato chips on top, to add not only a layer of crunch, but also an additional layer of fat.”
“Isn’t there someone at work you can pick on, instead of saving it all for me?”
“No – I’m the low man on the totem pole there. Which is why I have to come home and pick on you.” Shep motioned to the stove. “Is the dinner done? I’m starving.”
Lyle turned off the flame to the pan, then picked up the open Tuna Helper box sitting on the counter. “This says the sauce has to stand for ten minutes to thicken.”
“Well, if that’s what the box says. Nobody can overrule the box. Unless, of course, it’s to add peas and pink salmon.”
“Atlantic pink salmon. I might be unemployed, but I like to live large.”
Shep smiled. “All kidding aside, I really am proud of you, buddy. I’m glad you’re trying to be more positive.”
“And you deserve to be happy.”
“And you have as much of a right as anyone to enjoy everything life has to offer.”
Lyle nodded. “Again, thank you.”
“Of course, you’re going to have to get a life some point, but like we said, you got to start somewhere.”
“And there it is. I sensed an oncoming barb.”
“I just wanted to make sure Old Lyle hadn’t abandoned me completely. Your cynicism is irksome, but I also find it amusing. I wouldn’t want it to be all ponies and rainbows from now on.”
“If it’s ponies and rainbows you’re after, you might need to get a new roommate. Don’t get the wrong idea about me cooking and cleaning more.”
“Don’t worry – I’d only be concerned if you cooked and cleaned at all. So far, what I’m seeing doesn’t count.”
“Do you want me to wash this dinner down the drain?”
“I thought you’d never ask. You rinse out the pan, and I’ll get the number for pizza.”
“Yeah, there’s a health-conscious alternative. Just for that, I’m adding a layer of chips.”
Shep sipped his beer. “So, tell me more about this Annabelle story.”
“It’s not really a story. It’s more of a series of memories I had with her.”
“Like how we met, what her family was like – stuff like that. I even have a title picked out: Hearts Flying Freely.”
“You seem excited about it.”
“I kind of am. I wasn’t at first, but just writing down ideas got my mind to thinking. I felt that familiar spark of creativity that I haven’t had for a long time.”
“So you never really forget. Sort of like riding a bicycle, or making passionate love to a beautiful woman.”
Lyle shrugged. “The bicycle part for sure.”
“Are you going to let me read any of it, or is it too private to share?”
“I don’t really know yet,” Lyle said. “I guess it depends on how many buried skeletons crawl out of my subconscious during the actual writing process.”
“Sort of like roiling up a pond, huh?”
“Or a stagnant swamp,” Lyle said, grinning.
Thursday morning, nine-thirty. Lyle trekked downstairs from the apartment to the property manager’s office, which was housed in a small building at the front of the complex. The office reeked of cat urine and feet – which, interestingly enough, was how most of the apartments smelled, too.
There was nobody at the front desk when Lyle entered. He stood there with Shep’s rent check in hand, craning his neck to peer into the back room. He didn’t want to leave the check in the drop box, because Shep had requested a receipt. The guy was anal when it came to his money.
“Make sure they sign and date the receipt,” Shep had said. “I don’t need them misplacing my check and assessing a bogus late charge like they did last time.”
“Huh?” Lyle said. “Oh, yeah. Right.”
Shep narrowed his eyes. “You did submit the check on time last month … didn’t you? Because that was the story you told me.”
“Right. That was the story I told you.”
Shep’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Lyle?”
“You submitted the check late, didn’t you?”
Lyle bowed his head. “I had forgotten all about it. I’m sorry. But in my defense, I’d had a lot of vodka the night before.”
“You mean you drank yourself to oblivion in a fit of despair? Now that sounds more like the Lyle I know.”
Lyle shrugged. “You know how mournful I get when I start reflecting on my life.”
Shep glared. “This time, I want a receipt. Signed, dated and with the full rent amount.”
“Good idea. Then we’ll have proof if they try to assess one of their insidious little late charges.”
Shep’s eyes, which already were narrowed to slits, narrowed even further. “And I want you to text me the moment you have the receipt in hand. Then, you can scan and e-mail a copy to my work address.”
“Wow,” Lyle had said. “It’s as if you think I’m unreliable, or something.”
Shep gave him an icy, unblinking stare.
As he stood waiting in the lobby, Lyle could hear someone shuffling around in the back office. He clanged the bell sitting on the desk, to capture their attention. A loud crash and cursing ensued.
“I’m coming!” a woman screamed. “Dammit — I heard you come in. Just give me a second, will you?”
“Sorry!” Lyle called. “It’s just that I’m missing Saved By the Bell. It’s the one of the junior-high ones with Haley Mills.”
“Oh, well, in that case.” An older woman appeared, marching toward the desk. Lyle recognized her as the primary property manager, and not the receptionist he usually dealt with.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said, snatching his check. “We’re a little shorthanded today.”
“Can I get a receipt?” Lyle asked.
“But of course,” the property manager said, rolling her eyes. “It would be my absolute pleasure. I so enjoy being of service to my tenants.” She sat down and started scribbling details in her receipt book.
Lyle stood with his hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels. “So … it’s just you today?”
“Yeah. Our receptionist up and quit with no notice. So now I have to run the office, as well as perform all the inspections and move-outs. It’s a nightmare.”
“Really?” Lyle said. He clucked his tongue. “Have you posted the position yet?”
“Not yet. I haven’t had a chance. It’s one of the many items on my never-ending to-do list.”
“Would the new hire start immediately?”
“Of course. The sooner the better.” The property manager signed the receipt and handed it to him. “Why? You know someone who might be interested?”
“Actually, you’re looking at someone who might be interested.”
“Is that a fact?” The property manager wrinkled her nose. “I’m not sure I like what I’m seeing.”
“I assure you, this isn’t how I typically dress,” Lyle said. “I’m only wearing pajamas during the day because I’m depressed and unemployed.”
“I see.” The property manager frowned. “What qualifications do you have? Do you have a property-management license?”
“I don’t, unfortunately.”
“A real-estate license?”
“Sorry – no.”
The woman closed her eyes. “A high-school diploma, at least?”
“Actually, I’m a college graduate.”
“Yeah, well, so is every other spoiled punk in your generation. What’s your major? Something useless like philosophy or basket-weaving?”
“Journalism. I wanted a vibrant career that would allow me to achieve my dreams.”
“You should have kept dreaming. Do you have any actual skills to speak of, besides smiling for a television camera?”
“Actually, I can’t even do that — I didn’t major in broadcast. However, I can answer the phone and take memos. I worked as an executive-assistant for two years.”
“So you have a journalism degree, and you took a job as an executive-assistant?”
“I decided to pursue a career path outside of my chosen profession.”
“Because I got laid off from my chosen profession.”
“And they hired you because you had a journalism degree?”
“Actually, I think they were more impressed by my high-school diploma.”
“That’s because it’s more impressive. I wouldn’t list your degree on your resume — not if you want employers to take you seriously.”
“I’m not sure anyone takes me seriously. But I suppose that comes with the territory when you’re a clueless loser like me.”
“I’m not trying to sound mean. All I’m saying is if you go to college, you should at least major in something useful. What a tragic waste of your mom and dad’s money.”
“Indeed. They had these lofty visions of me succeeding in life, but not every dream can come true. Looking back, I wish I’d aspired to be something more useful, like a toilet scrubber.”
“Well, the world needs toilet scrubbers, too.”
Lyle raised an eyebrow. “That’s not in the job description, is it?”
“Only the office bathroom — which is open to the public. If someone asks to use it, you simply let them, no questions asked.”
“I can’t imagine wanting the details.”
The property manager looked him up and down. “The job starts at $9 an hour. Is that in your range, or are you one of those Millennials who demands top dollar because you have an inflated sense of self worth?”
“I assure you, I’ve never had a sense of self worth — inflated or otherwise. Not a day goes by that I don’t lament my existence.”
“So $9 is acceptable?”
“My current range is $0, so I could learn to make do.”
“I’m only asking because I don’t want to take the time to train you if you’re just going to leave for a better offer.”
“Well, I don’t have any irons in the fire, if that assuages your concerns. In fact, that fire’s long dead — and I don’t even have a match or two rocks to bang together.”
“You’ve been out of work for a while, then?”
“My unemployment ran out last month, and I’ve been living with my cousin for almost a year. Hence the daytime pajamas and suicidal demeanor.”
“Does your cousin live in our complex?”
“He does. He’s in the unit with the shag carpet and the fungus-filled bathroom.”
“And you said you’re living with him?”
“So far. But with a $9-an-hour job, I could finally afford to live on my own. Just the other day, I spotted an inviting-looking Dumpster behind the supermarket. I figure the rats and I could split the costs.”
“Are you on your cousin’s lease?”
“Well….” Lyle bit his lip.
“You’re required to be on the lease if you’re living in the apartment.”
“See, I’m learning already,” Lyle said. “If you’re willing to teach me everything you know about the business, I could be a stellar property manager in no time.”
“I don’t need a second property manager. What I need is a gopher.”
“Even better. Less learning involved.”
“It’s not an easy job,” the property manager said. “The phone rings constantly, and you have to deal with a lot of angry people.”
“Why are they so angry?”
“You’re familiar with our apartments, aren’t you? Shag carpets, fungus-filled bathrooms. Take your pick.”
“Oh, right. And not to mention the cockroaches in the cupboards.”
“So I need someone with a pleasant personality.” The property manager gave him a hard, discerning look. “How well do you handle stress in the work environment?”
“Well, I tend to bottle it up inside throughout the day, and then I go home and drink to excess.”
“And that’s your coping mechanism for handling stress?”
Lyle shrugged. “I use to blame it for my out-of-control alcoholism, but I’ve come to realize it’s just a part of who I am.”
“What? The stress?”
“No. The alcoholism.”
The property manager shook his hand. “Welcome to the real-estate business. You start Monday morning at 6 a.m.”
Friday night, six-thirty. Shep popped open a bottle of champagne and held it over Lyle’s head, dousing him with the foamy spray.
“Dammit, Shep!” Lyle hollered, jumping out of the way. “I didn’t know you were going to do that!”
“Just trying to get this party started.”
“There’s no reason to break out the champagne,” Lyle said, wiping his wet, dripping hair out of his eyes. “All I did was get a job. It’s not like I’m moving out.”
“I know that. This stuff’s only $1.99 a bottle. I’m saving the ’95 Krug Clos d’Ambonnay for the day you move out.”
“I’m happy you’re celebrating my success.”
“Well, it’s an occasion to celebrate, isn’t it? You finally got a job. What has it been – three years?”
“Oh. Well, I guess it felt longer.”
“It felt like eternity. I could have made a baby in the time it took me to find a job.”
“Really? I can make a baby in less than three minutes.”
“Not a great pick-up line, Shep. And what I meant, of course, was bringing a baby to term.”
“When have you ever brought a baby to term?”
“I haven’t, obviously — but I once ate an entire frozen pizza by myself. It took lamaze and two scoops of Metamucil to get the thing out. I imagine it’s close to the same feeling.”
“You know,” Shep said, “frozen pizza tastes so much better when you heat it in the oven.”
“That’s sage advice. You must be feeling the champagne.”
“It has nothing to do with the champagne. I’m just happy you’ve finally found a job.”
“I wish I could share your enthusiasm.”
“Don’t tell me you’re not excited. You’ve been out of work for almost a year.”
“Nine months, remember? Let’s not exaggerate. And yes, I’m definitely happy.”
Lyle shrugged. “But it’s also a weird feeling, being back in the rat race.”
“Rat race? Your commute is a two-minute walk to the property-manager’s office. The hardest part will be climbing the stairs to reach home.”
“Well, I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Then what did you mean?”
“I … I don’t know.” Lyle shrugged.
“Holy crap,” Shep said, rolling his eyes. “Can’t you ever stop being depressed, even when something good happens?”
“I’m not depressed. I just behave this way on principle.”
“Well, I definitely get the feeling I’m more excited about your new job than you are.”
“Of course you are. You’re under the impression that I’m going to start contributing more to the household expenses.”
Shep frowned. “Well, aren’t you?”
“At $9 an hour, I’ll barely be making enough to contribute to my own delinquency.”
“Well, I’ll take what I can get. As long as I don’t have to buy your vodka and Tuna Helper anymore, I’ll be happy.”
“On a receptionist’s salary, I might have to settle for generic beer and Top Ramen.”
Shep poured them each a glass of champagne. “So what exactly will you be doing? Taking rent checks?”
“Yeah, taking rent checks. And lots of phone calls, apparently.”
“And tenant complaints, I imagine?”
“Yeah,” Lyle said, sighing. “I imagine so.”
“And I assume you’re also going to be the property manager’s bitch?”
“Her assistant, yes.”
“Well, let’s call it what it is. Just because you landed a new job doesn’t mean you have to put on airs.”
“I didn’t realize. Does that mean I have to return the Corvette I bought this afternoon?”
“It does. And it means you should enjoy your $1.99 champagne, because you won’t taste a vintage so fine till the day you move out.”
“That’s OK. It’ll taste even better after aging a few more years.”
“Oh, wow,” Shep said, coughing. “I think I just aged a few more years.” He picked up the champagne and refilled his glass, then offered the bottle to Lyle.
Lyle shook his head. “You don’t need to refill my glass. I’ll just wring it out of my hair.”
“So,” Shep continued, setting the bottle down, “let’s take stock of your responsibilities. It sounds like you’ll be answering tons of phone calls, and we just established that you’re the property manager’s bitch.”
“A dream job, I know, but a college education entitles you to the finer things in life.”
Shep grimaced. “Not to be a downer, but this is beginning to sound a lot like your old job. Your executive-assistant gig, I mean.”
“It is, yes. I was thinking the same thing.”
Shep took a small sip of champagne. “So … I’m starting to see why you’re less than enthusiastic.”
“I’m glad you’ve come around to my perspective.”
Shep stared at his glass. “I was going to give you a toast, but all of a sudden it seems unnecessary.”
Lyle sighed. “I’m grateful I got this job. I really am. But … I sort of wish it could be in journalism. You know?”
“Yeah.” Shep nodded. “Yeah, I know.”
“I mean, I don’t want to seem unappreciative. I know I’m really lucky, and that I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But still, why couldn’t it be an editing job, or even just a proofreading job?”
Shep shrugged. “It’s this economic recovery. Unfortunately, it feels pretty much the same as the recession.”
“I’ll still definitely keep my eye open for journalism jobs,” Lyle said. “But at some point, I may have to face the fact that those kinds of jobs just aren’t coming back. Times have changed.”
“Would you ever consider moving?” Shep asked. “I imagine journalism jobs are available in other cities. Like Seattle, for instance. They’re pretty literary.”
“They’re also pretty expensive. I’d have to crash on Frasier’s couch until I could afford an apartment.”
“Well … have you ever thought of going to where the jobs are?”
“The thought’s crossed my mind.”
“Well … it’s not that easy. Everyone I know is in Nevada. Our whole family lives here, Shep.”
“Exactly. That’s a terrific ad for moving. Fewer weekend dinners at Grandma and Grandpa’s.”
Lyle shrugged. “Maybe someday, but not now. I don’t think I’m ready yet to leave Reno behind.”
“Are you sure? Because I’m sure Reno’s had about enough of you.”
“I was born and raised here. This city’s in my blood.”
“Then get a transfusion.”
Lyle frowned. “You really want me to leave, don’t you?”
“Nothing would make me happier.”
“That’s real nice — thank you.”
“I meant that in a good way, you douche. I want to see you succeed.”
“Naturally. Because if I succeed, then that means I’ll move out. And then you can go back to having your apartment all to yourself.”
“Really?” Shep asked, grinning. “I hadn’t considered that possibility.”
“Me moving out?”
“No — you succeeding.”
Lyle gave a small smile. “Never say ‘never.’ Right now, I’m content just to be working again, whatever the job.”
“That’s the spirit.” Shep raised his glass. “C’mon, a toast. This job has been a long time coming. You should be proud of yourself.”
“All right,” Lyle said, rolling his eyes. He raised his glass.
Shep clinked his glass against Lyle’s, then sipped his champagne.
“What?” Shep asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“You didn’t even say anything. You just clinked my glass.”
“Well, yeah. I skipped to the best part.”
“But no words of wisdom? No songs of praise?”
Shep belched. “I’ve had three glasses of champagne. I think that’s as good as you’re going to get.”
“Again, that’s real nice. Thank you.” Lyle sipped from his glass.
“Hey, man. You know I’m proud of you.” Shep stuck out his hand. “Congratulations. I mean it.”
Lyle shook Shep’s hand. Shep reached out and embraced Lyle in a giant bear hug.
“Dude,” Lyle said, gasping. “Squeezing a little hard, there.”
“Oh,” Shep said, setting him down. “Sorry. I was trying to wring the last of the champagne out of you. Your shirt and hair are soaked.”
“No problems. It’s just that whenever I’m manhandled, it’s usually by someone I’m working for.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Par for the course when you’re a property manager’s bitch.”
Shep grinned. “And at $9 an hour, you’re earning every penny.”